Begone, Skills!

I’ve been mulling over this for a while, but was sparked by reading this Elder Game article on the purpose of loot where it’s mooted that items-as-verbs is one way to stop the items arms race where no item is exciting because it’ll only last a few levels and/or because there’s always a better one waiting around the corner. Making items too powerful means you end up adjusting the world to always take them into account, at which point your uber-powerful items aren’t uber-powerful, they’re either average or de rigueur for tackling content, or both. Items-as-verbs, instead, provide only a temporary but more useful benefit that needs to be activated by the player, or is activated only under certain circumstances.

Thinking back on my tabletop days, where I was as excited as the next nerdette when I found a kick-ass magic sword or hat or whatever it was, makes me wonder why I’m so “meh” about items in MMOs. Part of it is what that Elder Game article describes — if items drop frequently (and they have to, it seems, in MMOs, or nobody’s happy; and even if they didn’t, farmers would ensure a steady supply so “rare” is an increasingly rare thing as far as items go) — where was I? — oh yeah: if items drop frequently and if all they really do is give you +1 to CharStat003, it’s hard to get all breathy and keen. I think our tabletop games fell somewhere between Scrooge and Monty Haul: we got a fair bit of silly or use/limited stuff, some pretty decent stuff now and then, and very rarely, we’d find that thing that makes you go Ooo. I well remember the kick-ass sentient!!! sword I found that made my ranger’s life difficult for the rest of her career. Who needs kids when you can have talking swords?

Another thing I didn’t have to deal with in my tabletop days was the plethora of skills my MMO characters have now. I don’t remain all that cool under combat pressure, so I happen to think I have way too many skills, since I almost never remember to use the ones that would be perfect for those rare but often deadly situations. This is very arbitrary, but I’m starting to think that if I need more than one toolbar for my common-use skills (let alone 3!), I have too many of them. When encounters become a question of learning which sequence of buttons to press in what order… well, maybe we’ve gone full circle back to the numbers-geekery of yore where it’s not about what you’re seeing or what’s happening, but about how to do the only right thing at exactly the right moment. While I realise that sort of activity is actually fascinating for many, all it does for me is make me want to do something else.

Now, I’m not saying we should do away with skills entirely. I like skills. I like having a selection of abilities that I can pick from depending on what I’m fighting. For me, however, fighting is usually a means to an end and not the end in itself — it leads to the fun corpse-loot-box, which I’ve always enjoyed opening (even if all I get is a manky bone and a piece of linen), it advances my characters a bit, and it moves me forward through whatever quest(s) I’m doing. And, that being the case, having 38 skills I need to remember (multiplied by my usual ridiculous number of alts) instead of, say, a dozen, means I just plain don’t remember most of them.

Ironically, in most cases it really doesn’t matter at all that I can’t remember most of what my gals can do. Many of the skills overlap, where one will do X amount of damage and the other will do X+1 amount of damage but is on a longer cooldown, and yet another does X amount of fire damage so it’s more useful in some cases than others… and so on. Some are really useful but on such long cooldowns I just don’t remember I have them, or can’t use them when I do remember them. And some are just plain crap. Personally — and I’m sure this won’t be a popular view — I’d rather have a few less skills that are a little more memorable and/or effective. I’d rather forget to use a handful of my abilities at most, rather than probably about half of them.

Sure, we get taught these skills progressively as we level, at least by most games out these days. (I’m not talking about skill-overload at level 5, 15 or even 25; even *I* can manage at those levels.) Even so, we have too many of them. There’s a skills arms race just as there is an items arms race, and it’s not easy to get excited about the 12th ranks of ClassSkill005.

So, aside from maybe a few less skills, I’d also like to see a few more “tailored” skills. I’d call them skills-as-verbs, but I think they’re verbs by definition since we choose when to activate them. I’d like to see skills that kick in only in certain specific situations; that’s already available in games, it’s just not very common. Something that activates for tanks when they’re at a certain low health percentage, or something that activates for healers if their target takes a certain (large) amount of damage. Or, if the Trinity has been banished too, maybe it could be something like an OhCrap! heal that activates for a mostly damage-based character if they take a really big hit — or a “That’s my friend, you bastard!” attack that would activate for mostly assist-type characters — and so on.

On the other hand, providing those might mean we end up with even MORE skills I won’t remember to use. We could make them auto-use (not exactly a new concept in MMOs, every pet class has that, not to mention that’s exactly what auto-attack is), but would that then lead to us spending more time watching the action rather than watching — and mashing — our hotbars? Actually watching those really neat animations and effects those artists slave over for our enjoyment? Perish the thought.

No, of course I’m not saying everything we have and can do should be automated; I’d be the last to say that, since I’m so rabid about being at the keyboard to actually get a playing experience. But a little more specificity in when a skill is useful and a little more choice in auto-activating them might be nice. The difficulty might be implementing that so playing doesn’t become an exercise in sitting back and letting your macros do the job for you — but since that’s already an option on all the major games I know about (maybe not a legal one, but certainly one that people aren’t shy about exercising), that sounds like crying over milk that spilled so long ago it’s turned into cheese right there on the floor.